Monday, October 14, 2013

Lower social status typically means more stress

Stress for SuccessOctober 15, 2013

A fascinating TV program reported research about status and stress with Stanford neurobiologist and my guru of stress physiology research, Dr. Robert Sapolsky. It featured a female researcher in Africa studying this phenomenon with apes, whose lowest status members sported huge rolls of abdominal fat! It was astounding! (An Internet search for her name yielded no results.)

Why would the lowest status apes store so much fat? They’re wild animals. You’d think they would be lean and muscular.

The reason, as researchers have long agreed upon, is that the more helpless one feels - the less control one perceives - when facing stressors the more lethal those stressors’ effects. This perception of control typically declines the further down the socioeconomic ladder you go, with potentially severe consequences. This was first noted decades ago when the assumption was that top executives who had the greatest responsibilities would have the highest corporate stress. To the early researchers’ surprise, it was secretaries, at the bottom of the influence ladder, who had the most stress. They had plenty of responsibility but very little control. Top executives had the control.  

Researchers have found those of least status:
·         Are more than three times as likely to die prematurely as those at the top;
·         More likely to suffer from depression, heart disease and diabetes;

Additionally, early childhood adversity produces consequences that remain decades later, such as:
·         Increased inflammation;
o   When chronic, it increases the risk of heart disease and diabetes;
·         Telomeres, the tips of chromosomes, appear to be shorter, which may indicate accelerated aging;
·         A higher risk of high blood pressure and arthritis;

Even those who later succeed economically may show persistent effects of early-life adversity by remaining more prone to illness than those who were never poor. Becoming more affluent can lower the risk of disease by increasing one’s sense of control and by providing greater access to healthier resources and social support.

In other words, people are not doomed by their upbringing. But the effects of early-life stress tend to remain, particularly because those peoples’ nervous systems are unfavorably molded and may even accelerate their aging.
“Early-life stress and the scar tissue that it leaves, with every passing bit of aging, gets harder and harder to reverse,” says Dr. Sapolsky. “You’re never out of luck in terms of interventions, but the longer you wait, the more work you’ve got on your hands.”

British epidemiologist Michael Marmot calls this, “status syndrome.” He found a direct relationship among health, well-being and social status. “The higher you are in the social hierarchy,” he says, “the better your health.” He explains that unlike those of lower rank, both a top executive and a worried affluent parent have resources to address their stressors. The poor have far fewer.

So the stress that kills, Dr. Marmot and others argue, is characterized by a sense of insufficient control over one’s fate often referred to as, “learned helplessness.” We’ll look more closely at this phenomenon in my next article.

Jacquelyn Ferguson, M. S. is an international speaker and a Stress and Wellness Coach.  Order her book, Let Your Body Win: Stress Management Plain & Simple, at  Email her to request she speak to your organization at